The can things with the sharp little edges
That can cut your fingers when you’re not looking
The soft little things on the floor that you step on
They can all be DANGEROUS.
As the lyrics of The Dangerous Kitchen by Frank Zappa imply, one can never be too careful. Although it was published in 1983, it, to some extent, foreshadows a perspective now dominant in Western World culture: ‘better safe than sorry’. This proverbial notion has taken center stage in Western world culture, and is now known usually referred to as precaution.
This so-called precautionary perspective has materialised in a legal principle called the precautionary principle (henceforth PP). It emerged as a doctrine cognisable by international policy-making at the Rio Summit in 1992, inserted in the Declaration on Environment and Development issued at the end of the conference, and can be found in numerous national and international legislation and treaties. It enjoys wide international support. The Rio definition reads as follows:
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
We are familiar with precaution when for instance climate change is discussed, or food safety, technology, medicine, and so on. Whenever human activities are involved, precaution shows up in not a few instances. The axiom put forward by the PP is that for a given human activity that may have a detrimental effect on the environment and/or human health, the PP is supposed to designate a remedy. The ‘burden of proof’ is shifted from the regulator to the person(s) responsible for the potentially harmful activity. Safety needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed or approximated.
The hopes are that the PP will generate a new (environmental) law system with universal scope that will protect the present and future generations against the environmental and health risks associated with the highly technological production methods and consumption patterns of us citizens. So, the PP is the tool for a glorious and sustainable future, which we usually and intuitively associate with organic farming, wind turbines, solar energy, and what not. Sustainability is usually characterized as the ability of humanity to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
So, any critique on this supposedly sensible approach? Most certainly, and I will look into a number of critical reflections in consecutive posts. One aspect that stands out in precautionary debates is the understanding of science and its results. Scientism—that is the view that all knowledge is scientific knowledge and that science alone is deemed to be capable of elucidating and resolving all genuine human problems (poverty, social inequity, global warming, warfare, pollution, food safety, the meaning of life, and etceteras) whereby all human affairs can be reduced to science—seems rampant in discussions that emphasize the need for precaution and a sustainable future.
Small wonder that in debates on precaution and sustainability criticism of whatever kind is usually labeled as immoral (as in jeopardizing humanity’s future, endangering species and/or ecosystems or stalling important policies, or being in the pockets of big oil or big pharma, or whatever), as this author can attest to. However, this is only sidestepping this important discussion as a means to hide a poverty of reason by means of some fallacy of argumentation, of which the ad hominem and popular arguments are the most common. In an upcoming post I will look into the history of precaution.
Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.